Cats could begin suffering from the same sort of health problems that bedevil the pedigree dog world unless breeders and their vets act to control irresponsible breeding practices, according to leading feline practitioner Martha Cannon.
Speaking at a Feline Advisory Bureau meeting in Basingstoke in November, Ms Cannon noted the storm of bad publicity which the Kennel Club faced in August after a BBC documentary highlighting the impact of inherited disease in dogs.
She suggested that many outside observers considered the criticism to be reasonable because the canine world has not been “sufficiently proactive” in dealing with the problems caused by pursuing rigid breed standards.
Although she recognised that some health problems were inevitable when maintaining pedigree lines, she hoped that UK cat breeders and their governing body, the General Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF), would be alert to the dangers. Ms Cannon regretted the GCCF’s recent decision to accept the hairless Sphynx cat as a recognised breed but was encouraged by its announcement that no other hairless breeds would be registered and that efforts would be made to prevent the defective gene being introduced into other breeds.
Similarly, the GCCF has refused to recognise the Scottish fold, a strain carrying a defective cartilage protein which causes joint problems as well as the characteristic crumpled ears.
Ms Cannon recognised, however, that official disapproval was not always enough to prevent some breeders from attempting to profit from kittens born with bizarre physical traits. She highlighted the “munchkin” breed developed in the US which has chondrodystrophy, causing severe arthritis and back problems. Neither this breed, nor the even more grossly disabled “twisty kits”, which have only vestigial forelimbs, have been recorded so far in the UK.
Although pedigree cat breeds were generally much healthier than their canine equivalents, there were major problems with some breeds, Ms Cannon noted. One widely recognised breed was actually defined by its genetic defect, the manx. The breed’s tail-less state was associated with significant health problems such as incontinence, constipation and spina bifida, she reminded her audience of breeders, veterinary surgeons and VNs.
Careful monitoring needed
Without careful monitoring of the health of pedigree breeds, it was very easy for a genetic disorder to become quickly established as had the mutation responsible for polycystic kidney disease in Persian cats during the 1990s.
Co-operation between the FAB and breeders in carrying out ultrasound scanning of the kidneys of young cats below breeding age has helped to cut the prevalence of the disease by about half, although with about 20% of UK Persians carrying the autosomal dominant defect, there was still some way to go.
Most common inherited disorders are recessive traits and eliminating these would be much more difficult but there was hope that progress would be made. Ms Cannon noted that the first draft of the feline genome was completed last year in the USA and it was likely that there would soon be a number of new genetic tests available for cats to supplement the four already on the market.
Meanwhile, the FAB has established a website (www.fabcats.org/breeders/inheriteddisorders) that lists all known and suspected inherited disorders in pedigree cats and Ms Cannon hoped this would be an invaluable resource for cat breeders and their veterinary advisers in reducing the impact of these diseases. She recognised that the website was not perfect and would appear to indicate disproportionately severe health problems in those breeds with active and vigilant breed clubs.
But its value would increase as new information was gathered and for this to occur it was essential that breeders were willing to openly discuss possible health issues and did not attempt to sweep them under the carpet, she said.